Iceland, with its long, dark winters and barren fields, fails when it comes to vineyards but scores on excellent craft beers. What else do you do when winter months stretch on in near total darkness? You brew beer with what you have available – things like glacier water, moss, birch and whale testicles, of course.
From Olvisholt Vatnajokull “Frozen in Time,” a brew named for the famous glacier it draws water from, to the malty, dark, coffee-inflected Einstok Toasted Porter, Iceland is a beer lover’s paradise. Finding it at certain hours of the day is the problem. Welcome to the Vinbudin, a government-regulated beer dispensary with very, very limited hours.
Public Enemy Number One
Prohibitionists felt that beer’s cheap, plentiful nature would corrupt absolutely. In 1908, a referendum voted on by the Icelandic people banned all alcohol.
While Americans threw their hats in the air and celebrated the end of Prohibition in December of 1933, over half a century later, Iceland was still living in the Beer Dark Ages. Though varying levels of legalization of spirits and wine occurred over the decades intervening, it wasn’t until March 1, 1989 – now known as “Beer Day” in Iceland – that strong beer (over 2.25%) was legalized.
Thank Thor for that, since Icelandic beer, with its ingredients pulled straight from the land of fire and ice, belongs in a pantheon of the gods. The best of the Icelandic beer is brewed with water that has melted from ancient glaciers, flown down mighty mountains, and trickled across broken lava fields populated by the hidlufolk, the mythic people many Icelandic residents still believe in. But this is Everyman’s beer as well. The men of the Night’s Watch would gladly toss keg after keg of Iceland’s porters and bocks down their throats in their rowdy dining hall, or pensively sip steins of it late at night in their rooms, girding themselves for the coming winter.
A recent trip to Iceland gave me the opportunity to be that Everyman, sampling beer at a low price compared to what I would pay for the brews had they been imported to America. Because my best friend and I were staying in Airbnbs and small guesthouses, we knew “Mission: Alcohol After Freezing-Cold Hikes” was up to us.
We knew from our guidebook that the main place for buying liquor was the Vinbudin, and that it had very limited hours, but our first visit to the government-regulated Vinbudin was a shock.
When we pulled up, we thought we were in a hardware store. Oh, in fact, it was a hardware store. And somewhere, tucked into the back of the hardware store, we knew there must be alcohol – our noses scented malt and hops, we swore.
We followed our noses to a tiny little afterthought of a room in the back of the large building, and there we picked up regular Kaldi and Kaldi Dokkur, which seemed to be very common (we saw them on tap in restaurants).
These two beers could form a mini-flight together, starting first with the Kaldi, a standard pale lager that would pair well with a spicy meal (if you could find it in Iceland outside of Reykjavik) and soothe your burning tongue.
The Kaldi was one of the first Icelandic microbrews, and the brewery does Czech-style beers. Though basic, Kaldi’s crisp, slightly bitter, carbonated tang will suit you nicely on one of the few warm days (or hours) Iceland chooses to bestow upon you in July or August. Sitting on a balcony facing Lake Myvatn, holiding this golden lager with its foamy head in hand, you might think you are in Prague at a restaurant overlooking the Vltava River … but probably not, since you’ll then turn to the Kaldi Dokkur.
Seductive and dark, this brew is like its label – vampire-like and gothic at first glance, but up close you realize it’s really just a dark knight. A dunkel, or dark lager, the Dokkur pours dark red, and roasted nuts and yeast come through. Not too light-bodied and not too dark, not too fizzy or too flat, it’s altogether the beer that you want with your reindeer meatballs in their hearty gravy. The Dokkur will lighten you up after each savory bite, but not be drowned out by such a dish.
The Olvisholt brew we tried was named after the famous glacier Vatnajokull, a beautiful, intimidating mass of ice covering over 8% of the country. From that glacier flows the water that Olvisholt uses to brew Vatnajokull: Frozen in Time, a reddish-amber charmer that we sampled at a local restaurant after a hail-filled hike to the glacier.
A Belgian ale style beer, this caramel-inflected, creamy, spicy, sweetish pour came from a bottle featuring the glacier and the beautiful green fields its local thyme must come from (fields that must show themselves when it’s not hailing, we suspected). Drinking this, you very well may be drinking the recycled remnants of Vikings or explorers; who knows, after all, what bodies were lost or frozen in that glacier? Luscious, herby, medium-bodied, honeyed but not too sweet, this was a bottle we wanted to buy three six-packs of at the Vinbudin and take with us.
Photo via Einstok/Facebook
On an unforgivingly rainy day on the Snaefellsnes peninsula after a day of horseback riding, we sank gratefully into the colorful, cozy cafe at The Settlement Centre in Borgarnes and ordered two Einstok Toasted Porters from their diverse selection of Icelandic beers. We’d spent the afternoon learning about Egil’s Saga, and now we were feasting on beers featuring a Viking’s face in profile.
Brewed in Akureyi, a sweet little town that boasts its place as the second-largest city in Iceland, this brew is made with Icelandic roasted coffee, chocolate malt, lager malt, Munich malt and Bavarian hops. It pours dark and looks deceptively heavy but feels much lighter than it looks. Medium-bodied, with a rich, chocolaty, toasty, malty scent, it clocks in at 6%. A smooth operator, it does its magic with its subtle notes. What’s that I smell? Could it be Icelandic licorice? Or is that a dark, dried fruit note with a bit of tobacco?
Sheep Dung and Whale Testicles
In case locally-grown thyme is just too boring for your adventurous appetites, Stedji Brewery in west Iceland has a solution. Sheep dung and whale testicles. Yes, that’s right, Stedji, which has its own fountain of spring water, prefers to add those two things to the pure spring water instead of something like thyme. The whale testicles are smoked with sheep dung (due to the lack of trees in Iceland with which one would otherwise smoke things) to produce Iceland’s most unique beer. Since the employees are still alive, I’m guessing the beer passed all Icelandic food safety regulations.
Þorri, which during the old Icelandic calendar was the fourth winter month, and is now designated as mid-January to mid-February, is an important tradition in Icelandic history. In celebration of the thundergod Thor, it is tradition in Iceland to brew special beer, drink brennivin ,and eat soured whale fat, ram’s testicles, and rotten shark (Thor would want you to, right?). Stedji’s Hvalur 2, which contains the aforementioned unmentionables, is one of the brews made specially for Þorri. We didn’t get to try it, and we’re not sure we ever will because our whale-watching cruise so heartily lectured us on not eating puffin or whale, but if you do, send us a postcard.
We recommend that you check with breweries prior to your trip to see if you can visit during open hours, or schedule a special appointment to see the brewmaster at work. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up in Reykjavik for The Icelandic Annual Beer Festival. Check the site of the artsy, performance-oriented hostel we stayed at for next year’s details.